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Worlds Without End Blog

The Horror! The Horror! – Kathe Koja Posted at 7:02 PM by Charles Dee Mitchell


Guest Blogger and WWEnd Member, Charles Dee Mitchell, has contributed a great many book reviews to WWEnd including his extensive Philip K. Dickathon blog series. In this series Dee explores the darker side of genre fiction and it’s practitioners. Be sure to visit his blog for more genre goodness.

Kathe KojaIf I found a hole into another dimension in the utility closet of my dingy apartment building, I like to think I would contact either MIT or the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton. On the other hand, if I was either of the characters from Kathe Koja‘s The Cipher (1991), no, I would keep the discovery as the special plaything for myself and my really pretty awful girlfriend. Then all sorts of horrible and unfortunate things could happen, one of the worst being the appearance of a similar hole in the palm of my hand.

This is the set up for Kathe Koja’s debut novel The Cipher, one of the three horror novels she wrote in the early 1990’s before turning to YA fiction. I haven’t read the YA novels, but given the content of the three horror novels I have read, she had to make a serious turn to produce YA material. But the switch could do her good, possibly trimming some of the lugubrious fat from the prose of these earlier works. The Cipher, Bad Brains (1992), and Skin (1993) are overripe with grungy, sex-drenched prose, but they work. This is horror that infests a social setting where young people are making bad decisions that push their curiosity for all things dark and weird toward grotesque and tragic consequences.

The Cipher
Bad BrainsSkin

Koja needs very little of the supernatural for her horror tales. The Cipher concerns what must be a scientific phenomenon that none of the wastrel art students who are dragged into the tale see any need to investigate beyond the fact that it is way cool and weird. In Bad Brains the hero suffers a blow to the head that leaves him with frontal lobe seizures and visions of a malevolent mass of the color silver. I knew that was going to sound ridiculous when I wrote it, but this mass of silver, which any reader is going to write off as a residual hallucination left over from the accident, is really bad news. Running around the country, drunk and stoned and hanging out with strippers, is probably not the best way to deal with it. When the story moves to the derelict home of a brujo in Michigan, the tragedy could be either purely psychological or the result of occult forces. And there is other weirdness that beggars logical explanation. The hero here is an artist, as are most of Koja’s characters. As he travels the northern Midwest, he gets reports from his dealer back home that the paintings he left in his charge are suddenly selling, but their new owners complain that the images begin to change after they get them on the wall.

Skin is Koja’s best novel and the one with the fewest traditional horror trappings. Koja never states a locale for her stories, but she is from Detroit, and a rundown Motorcity, with brutal winters and sweltering summers, seems a likely choice. Everyone is an artist of some sort. I don’t know anything about what the Detroit art scene might have been like in 1990, but none of her artists make anything that seems like it would be taken seriously as art. There is lots of fantasy painting and metal sculpture. But Skin brings in the world of transgressive performance that was an important presence at that time. Koja even credits Survival Research Laboratories and books published by ReSearch in her forward to this novel. Skin is a tale of young people pushing their bodies to ever greater extremes, staging illegal performances with battling machines, real blood, and moments of masochistic ecstasy. Unfortunately, people also die. Koja is not an outsider judging this scene. She chronicles her central character’s slide into madness with unflinching objectivity. The young artists in The Cipher play naively with forces they do not understand and bad things happen. In Skin the artists pursue a vision they will not relinquish even if it destroys them.

Koja’s horror novels are now out of print, but they did not go unnoticed when they first appeared. The Cipher was nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award and Skin was nominated for the World Fantasy Award. Her latest novel, Under the Poppy, is a sexy story set in a 19th century Belgian brothel. Reviews are good, it has won a couple of awards, and it is being adapted for the stage.

Click the book covers to read my reviews of the individual Koja novels.

The Horror! The Horror! Joe McKinney Posted at 1:24 PM by Charles Dee Mitchell


Guest Blogger and WWEnd Member, Charles Dee Mitchell, has contributed a great many book reviews to WWEnd including his extensive Philip K. Dickathon blog series. In this series Dee explores the darker side of genre fiction and it’s practitioners. Be sure to visit his blog for more genre goodness.

Joe McKinneyFor an author of zombie novels, Joe McKinney has an unbeatable backstory. For the past twenty years or so, he has been a policeman in San Antonio, Texas, serving as a homicide detective, then in the office of emergency preparedness, and now overseeing the 911 division. It’s not that San Antonio has been especially prone to zombie attacks during that time, but cops have seen a lot of the worst parts of human nature. McKinney’s protagonists, who tend to be cops themselves, cannot possibly be prepared for the horrific situations they encounter, but they handle themselves cooly and professionally – at least for as long as such a response is possible. If I found myself in a zombie-infested quagmire, I would want to stay close to one of McKinney’s main characters, unless he proved to be one of the immoral bastards the author also throws into the mix.

Dead CityApocalypse of the DeadFlesh EatersMutated

McKinney’s Dead World series consists of Dead City, Apocalypse of the Damned, and Flesh Eaters. In September, 2012, this trilogy will be joined by Mutated. McKinney’s titles let you know what you are getting. His initial trilogy has an interesting chronology. Dead City (2006) takes place in San Antonio during the night that the infection plaguing a storm-ravaged Houston first makes its way north. There are those inevitable early police reports: “We got a party getting out of hand down on the east side.” Apocalypse (2010) returns to Houston, a month or so after the city has been quarantined. Only if you have never watched a horror movie in your life, you know how well that quarantine is going to hold. The novel follows a band of escapees heading north to a settlement that promises protection for the zombie hordes. Again, unless you have never watched a horror movie in your life, you know how well that is going to work out.

The problem endemic to zombie fiction, on which the floodgates have now officially been opened, is that we have, after all, seen all this before. George Romero created Night of the Living Dead in 1968. To some extent, all zombie films and fiction are a gloss on the Romero original. (I am not counting earlier zombie works that based themselves on Haitian and voodoo motifs.) Something brings the dead back to life. The deadly extraterrestrial rays of forty years ago have been for the most part updated to hemorrhagic viruses. The infection spreads by bites or bodily fluids, victims crave human flesh, and there is no cure. The only real question that each author and filmmaker must decide is whether to create fast or slow zombies. I am in the slow zombie camp myself, but I admire McKinney’s solution. He allows for relative mobility based on the age and health of the victim.

McKinney’s prose has the no-nonsense, laconic rhythm that fits well with his police officer protagonists. The stories are predictable, but the secret here is to make each moment believable and to pace the gross outs with realistic depictions of what it is going to take for each character to live through the next hour. McKinney’s novels were getting noticed by those who give horror writing awards early on, and in 2011 he won a Bram Stocker Award for Flesh Eaters. And that third outing is definitely where he came into his own as a writer. Dead City was just like a zombie movie, except it took five hours to read instead of ninety minutes to watch. Apocalpyse succeeded in opening up the story, but the climax came directly from accounts of the Jonestown Massacre, only with zombies instead of federal agents on hand for the tragic conclusion.

Flesh Eaters goes back to Houston and the series of storms that not only destroy the city but through chemical spills and god knows what else sets in motion the infections that will change life on earth forever. Again, this is a zombie story, and so we know basically what is going to happen. But for the first time, McKinney creates morally complex characters capable of both courage and betrayal in the face of the unthinkable horrors they confront.

I am not going to become a fan of zombie fiction. The only other example I have read was the well-received novel Feed by Mira Grant and I absolutely hated it. But come September, I feel certain that I will be searching out McKinney’s latest, even though with the title Mutated I am pretty damn sure I now at least three fourths of what is going to happen.

You can read my reviews of Dead City, Apocalypse of the Damned, Flesh Eaters and Feed right here on Worlds Without End.



The Horror! The Horror! – Tom Piccirilli Posted at 3:09 AM by Charles Dee Mitchell


Guest Blogger and WWEnd Member, Charles Dee Mitchell, has contributed a great many book reviews to WWEnd including his extensive Philip K. Dickathon blog series. In this series Dee explores the darker side of genre fiction and it’s practitioners. Be sure to visit his blog for more genre goodness.

Tom PiccirilliThe less Tom Piccirilli encumbers his novels with plot, the better they are. At least that has been the case in his five early horror novels I have read: Hexes (1999), The Deceased (2000), The Night Class (2001), A Choir of Ill Children (2004) and, Headstone City (2006). The novels are by no means short of grotesque and often unpleasant incidents. But Piccirilli works by accumulation not by character arcs and interwoven themes. His theme is consistently that of a young man, in his late twenties or thirties, who must come to accept his role in society, whether it is the gangland of Brooklyn or a backwater town somewhere in the American South. But the novels are not traditional bildungsromans. This is not in the world of David Copperfield or Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. These are nightmares.

Headstone SityDemonic evil, ghosts, astral projections, some handy knowledge of witchcraft, and alternate realities are daily issues for Piccirilli’s protagonists. In Headstone City, Johnny Danetello endures frequent visitations from the dead, ranging from the girl he could not save from an overdose to his mother to "the boy with the damaged head." Caleb Prentiss, an alcoholic upperclassman at a small, snowbound Midwestern university, wants to find out more about the girl murdered in his dorm room over winter break. He is often accompanied by his sister who committed suicide; and, when he receives the unasked-for blessing of the stigmata in both palms, he leaves bloody paths across the snowy campus. Thomas, the central character of A Choir of Ill Children has too many issues to go into here, but one involves the care of his brothers, triplets conjoined at the frontal lobe.

A Choir of Ill ChildrenPiccirilli’s locales are sharply observed locations that could exist nowhere but in his novels. In addition to the snowbound campus in The Night Class and the swampy town of Kingdom Come in A Choir of Ill Children, Piccirilli delineates in Hexes the town of Summerfel – Summerfell! – a small town dominated by an asylum named Panecraft, a lighthouse undermined by tunnels containing some unspeakable horror, a local hangout called Krunch Burger, and a rich man’s house that is more like a castle than a mansion. If you don’t like things in Summerfel, you can always move the next town over to Gallows. Headstone City takes place in an imaginary neighborhood of an otherwise identifiable Brooklyn, a neighborhood where the decaying mansions of stars from the earliest days of silent film surround the enormous cemetery of the title. The neighborhood is still run by some goonish gangsters who have mostly moved their money into legit businesses but who still, guided by a misplaced enthusiasm for their once glorious past, enact the occasional bloody vendetta against one another.

The Night ClassSeveral internet customer reviews complain that these books make no sense, but I think those readers are looking for the wrong things. Like a coherent plot. Piccirilli is a lot of fun to read. There is always that central character who knows a bit more than those around him; whether it is more effective magical spells or just that so much of what is going on is bullshit. When Piccirilli brings more plotting into the mix, things tend to go wrong. The Deceased turns into little more that a pretty good horror movie, with girls, who I assume have large breasts, running around an old house during a thunderstorm. The gangster story that runs through Headstone City is not as resolved or effective as the weirdness that underlies it.

But these books are just the kind of fun I hoped modern horror novels could offer. They are literate, amusing, at times really icky, and never slow down. I understand that Piccirilli’s recent novels are more straightforward crime stories, so I hope he has worked out those plotting issues. On the off chance that anyone reading this might actually pick up a Piccirilli novel, I recommend starting with the best, A Choir of Ill Children. If nothing else, you will learn a really interesting new use of the word "vinegar."

The Horror! The Horror! – Ramsey Campbell Posted at 8:09 AM by Charles Dee Mitchell


Guest Blogger and WWEnd Member, Charles Dee Mitchell, has contributed a great many book reviews to WWEnd including his extensive Philip K. Dickathon blog series. This is a new series where Dee explores the darker side of genre fiction and it’s practitioners. Be sure to visit his blog for more genre goodness.

Ramsey CampbellRamsey Campbell‘s home page opens with a quote from the Oxford Companion to English Literature. It informs us that Campbell is "Britain’s most respected living horror writer."

My copy of the OCEL is a fifth edition and has no entry for Campbell at all. If it did, that first statement might be followed by this bit of information: Charles Dee Mitchell has attempted to read five of Mr. Campbell’s works and only succeeded in finishing three. And trust me, in the case of those I abandoned it was not because I was too terrified to turn another page.

The Hungry MoonRamsey Campbell may neither travel well nor date well. He has an American following but is a much bigger deal, obviously, in Great Britain. He is, after all, their most respected living horror writer. He has been publishing since the late 1950’s, and his most recent novel came out just this year from one of the presses that do high-priced, short runs of fantasy, horror, and science fiction titles. The books I tried were early to mid career novels. The Doll Who Ate His Mother (1976), The Face that Must Die (1979), The Nameless (1981), The Hungry Moon (1986), and The Influence (1988). Perhaps the past two decades have seen a remarkable transformation of his style and storytelling, but it is not as though the ones I read came un-recommended. The Face That Must Die was a somewhat fancy reprint with an introduction by Poppy Z. Brite and a few really bad illustrations. The Influence won the 1989 British Fantasy Award and is on the Guardian’s list of best sf and fantasy. The Hungry Moon, absolutely the worst of the lot, is the novel chosen by the Horror Writers Association to represent Campbell’s work.

The InfluenceSo is it just me? Of course, if that turned out to be the case, I would be the last person to admit it. I found the books mildly entertaining to unreadable. The thought that they might be genuinely frightening or even unnerving never crossed my mind.

I’ll start with the ones I didn’t finish. The Hungry Moon is an overlong tale of Druid magic resurrected in the modern day by a religious nut. Campbell introduces us to too many of the residents of Moonwell, a village in Northern England. We learn what supposedly makes each one interesting and that takes a while. Then the event happens and we see how each of them react. Since I started skimming and finally quit the book, I don’t know the full panoply of horrible things that go on. But in the first chapter you learn that the village of Moonwell not only no longer exists but has been removed from maps, memories, and the telephone directory. The Influence concerns an evil great aunt out to possess the soul of her grandniece. If it had been a movie on TV and I could fast forward the commercials I would have watched it. But I couldn’t read it.

The Doll Who Ate His MotherThe other three novels are about psychopaths, two of them with some black magic references. The best of them is The Face that Must Die. The anti-hero, a Mr.Horridge, is a deranged young man obsessed with the evils of homosexuality. Great Britain decriminalized homosexuality in 1967, and decade later, Horridge sees the twisted results of the legislation everywhere he turns. He and his hammer will do what they can to remedy this situation. When the book first came out, portions were excised supposedly because they were too shocking. The complete text did not come out until 1982. Now the book just seems like fun. Horridge is crazy, and the block of flats on which he focuses his rage is peopled by characters only one of whom is gay and none of whom have any idea what’s coming. Like some of those old British stage thrillers, this is a shocker that now plays as black comedy.

Campbell lives in Liverpool, and what he does best it create the down-in-the heel atmosphere and characters of that dismal, at least in his rendering, Northern England city. Everything is rundown, the weather is miserable, the people often not very bright. I especially liked the paranoid, pot-smoking hippie and the scatterbrained artist who lets a psychopath into her flat thinking he is the plumber.

So big deal, Mr. Campbell is not my cup of tea. If anyone, however, finishes The Influence, I am curious to know if anything even vaguely unpredictable happens by the time it is over.

The Horror! The Horror! – Poppy Z. Brite Posted at 12:02 PM by Charles Dee Mitchell


Guest Blogger and WWEnd Member, Charles Dee Mitchell, has contributed a great many book reviews to WWEnd including his extensive Philip K. Dickathon blog series. This is the start of a new series where Dee explores the darker side of genre fiction and it’s practitioners. Be sure to visit his blog for more genre goodness.

Poppy Z. Brite - Billy MartinThis is not going to be a easy to write as I thought. I had my first line all planned out and can still use it:

"Of course her real name is not Poppy Z. Brite. It’s a pseudonym used by Melissa Ann Brite, born May 25, 1967 in New Orleans, Louisiana."

I got that much by glancing at Brite’s Wikipedia entry. But further down the page I picked up this bit of information: "Brite is a transgender man, born biologically female. He has written and talked much about his gender dysphoria/gender identity issues. He self-identifies with gay males, and as of August 2010, has begun the process of gender reassignment."

That I didn’t know, but it goes some ways towards explaining why almost all of Brite’s male characters, whether they are vampires, musicians, artists, drug dealers, or serial killers tend to be gay men.

When I decided to read some horror fiction, I thought I would start with Brite because I had heard the novels were good, moody, sexy, and very bloody. She, as I thought at the time, represented the new generation of horror writers, steeping the novels in a gothic punk atmosphere that no other writer at the time — the early 1990’s — had explored. Although she wrote stand alone novels, some characters and settings reappeared, creating a world of the supernatural and the grotesque that alternated between Missing Mile, North Carolina and New Orleans. (I love that name, Missing Mile.)

Brite’s horror publishing career lasted only half a decade and produced three novels and two volumes of short stories. His first novel, Lost Souls, he began while still a teenager. When his last horror novel, Exquisite Corpse came out in 1996, he was 29. Brite then turned to writing comic novels centered around the New Orleans restaurant scene. For the past several years, he as been on an official hiatus from writing at all. But I think with Lost Souls, Drawing Blood, and Exquisite Corpse Brite has left a significant legacy in the horror genre. (I have not read the short stories.)

Lost SoulsLost Souls is a lushly over-written, almost plotless tale of vampires traveling the country in what must be a very smelly van given their sloppy feeding habits. Their handsome leader, Zillah, keeps things somewhat under control with his more party-minded friends Molochai and Twig. They meet up with a confused, not yet out of the vampire closet fifteen-year old named Nothing. Nothing and Zillah almost instantly hit the sack. In a scene that involves killing his best friend, Nothing learns he is a vampire. Later he learns that Zillah, due to a one night stand in New Orleans many years ago, is his father, a fact that does not put a crimp in the sexual activity. They hang out in Missing Mile, NC, which is a much hipper place than it sounds. They seduce some people, they kill some people, they meet up with an old friend from New Orleans and relocate. There they get involved with some other kinky types — there’s no point in going any further with this. Brite’s enthusiastic prose keeps things happening if not exactly moving in any particular direction. It’s fun, although long.

Drawing BloodDrawing Blood returns to Missing Mile where the sole survivor of a family massacre returns twenty years later to confront family ghosts. He meets up with a computer hacker on the run from the feds and guess what, they spend almost all their time in bed — or on the floor or in the shower. They are at the age when erections are so hard they ache. If the traditional horror audience of 16 to 25 year old males actually read this book, things have changed. Or maybe that demographic only applies to horror movies and not horror fiction. Drawing Blood is a haunted house story of sorts, with lots of rock and roll, gay sex, and mushroom ingestion. It is also a romance with a happy romance ending that I personally thought was out of place, but I suspect Brite, or at least his publishers, know their audience.

Exquisite CorpseAnd what to make of Exquisite Corpse? Brite says his original publishers turned it down because it was too extreme. They would have had a point. The descriptions of necrophilia, torture, and cannibalism are like nothing in the previous novels. The book has at least a couple of images that unfortunately will most likely always be with me. But her publishers might also rightly have considered this novel something of a mess. HIV and AIDS are prominent elements in the story, and perhaps the serial killers are meant to represent the death sentence the disease was considered at the time. This is Brite’s best writing. The grotesque sex is like the Marquis de Sade minus all the frou-frou. or Georges Baitaille without the pretension. What ever was intended, Exquisite Corpse might best be considered grand guignol fun. It is also a book I would never recommend to anybody I know, fearing recriminations.

Brite’s three novels are quickly becoming period pieces, and you have to find them squeezed onto the shelves surrounded by all the paranormal romance and zombie crap that dominates the field. I like to imagine some unsuspecting Laura K. Hamilton fan will pick up Exquisite Corpse and live to regret it.

The Horror! The Horror! – In Which I Confront Fear Posted at 6:53 AM by Charles Dee Mitchell


Guest Blogger and WWEnd Member, Charles Dee Mitchell, has contributed a great many book reviews to WWEnd including his extensive Philip K. Dickathon blog series. This is the start of a new series where Dee explores the darker side of genre fiction and it’s practitioners. Be sure to visit his blog for more genre goodness.

I ain't afraid of no ghost!Depending upon which survey you read, somewhere between 30% and 50% of Americans believe in ghosts.

That number seems high to me, and I would like to know how each survey phrased the question. If some one hated to be rude to the lingering dead and deny their existence entirely, did they waffle and say, "Well, maybe," and then get classified with the yea sayers? Were they merely ghost agnostics, wanting to leave at least a tiny rent in the veil that separates the living from the dead? After all, how can you really know?

I realize that I am about to lose potentially between a third and one half of my already scant readership here, but I have to say that on this one point at least, people who believe in ghosts simply are not very bright. Now all those same people are saying that I’m not very open-minded to shut the door on the very possibility of a spirit lingering after the body’s death, but you know, fuck that. Grow up. I ain't afraid of no ghost! Ghosts answer a variety of needs in peoples’ lives, from comfort to punishment, but they are not real. There are many creepy aspects to deserted houses, lonely country roads, bad parts of town, and abandoned mental hospitals, but they have nothing to do with ghosts. The night you saw your grandmother, a week after her death, sitting at the foot of your bead may have seemed very real — I know it did in my case — but she was not a ghost.

Having said all this, I admit that the only thing that really scares me, in movies or stories, is a ghost or a haunted house. Vampires, werewolves, serial killers, monsters large and small are there for my entertainment. If one leaps out from behind a closed door I may jump out of my seat with the rest of the audience, but I would do the same thing if a CPA jumped out from behind a closed door. That is nothing more than being startled. But ghosts are uncanny. They worm their way into that part of my brain that knows better but cannot fight back the reflex reaction that raises goosebumps or makes you wish the wife would just stay in her room and not check out those noises downstairs.

Horror Writers Association Reading ListI blame my parents. When I was in seventh grade they gave me the Modern Library, Giant Edition, Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural. The stories terrified and delighted me. They were almost all of either Victorian or Edwardian vintage, and that specific diction in a story, the sound of the Oxford Don hesitant to tell his tale for fear of being thought mad, still does it for me. Films and modern writers that attempt that exact atmosphere tend to be creaky and ineffectual. But there are endless modern variations. I find modern vampire stories silly and serial killers tedious if sometimes disgusting, but a film like Paranormal Activity can have me squirming in my seat. (At least the first one did. I just saw Paranormal Activity 3 and felt like I was hearing the same joke for the third time. Although it had its moments.)

Horror Writers Association Reading ListRecently I have begun reading horror novels. The Horror Writers Association has published a list of 40 must reads in the genre, many of which I must have read in Junior High and High School. I have also taken a look at the annual Bram Stoker Award winners. It’s an interesting list with some surprises. Joyce Carol Oates, no doubt, was delighted to win in 1996 for a book I’ve never heard of called Zombie, but how must a writer the quality of Stewart O’Nan have felt about first being nominated and then losing out to a novel by Peter Straub in 2003?

I have misgivings about the length of most of these books. How can anything be scary for 400 pages? But I am approaching this with an open mind, hoping for entertainment and the occasional creepy moment. And yes, they will find their way here and onto Potato Weather. I hope to use the word putrescent a great deal.